The Oakeshott conference was quite wonderful in so many ways and I hope to blog about it soon. But leaving the rather poignantly named Waco International Airport, I came upon one of those little moments of grace worth passing along. On my way to the gate, the shoe shine man did a boisterous sales job. "You've got plenty of time, sir. Plenty of time." I brushed him off, but he kept at it. I find the whole process of a shoe shine faintly embarrassing (although it has its moments in a leather bar) and the idea of sitting up on a pedestal while someone bows and scrapes on your shoes ... well, it just feels wrong to me. Before me in line, Roger Scruton had sat there and been ministered unto and I had inwardly smirked (to my shame).
But the man insisted - he was African-American - and at that point my libertarian instincts kicked in. This was his job and my own snooty sense of p.c. amour-propre shouldn't get in the way of his making a buck.
So I climbed up, sat down, and by way of easing my discomfort, asked him where he was from.
"Waco, all my life, sir." I then asked him what it was like when he was younger (he seemed in his sixties, I'd say). He told me of a tornado, and of floods. I then asked him about segregation. He didn't hesitate to talk about it, but I could tell he would have never brought it up if I had not prompted him. Yes, he recounted the indignities, as he dabbed my shoes with polish, but without a trace of bitterness: of how he and a co-worker would have to enter a store by different entrances, how any hint of rebellion would be met with violence, how you had to keep your head down or "you had a problem", how certain neighborhoods were simply off-limits by day or night, how his relatives had been beaten, how he had learned to keep his peace and do his job. At one point, it got so bad he left for Nevada. But he soon returned.
I asked him how he survived. "Prayer," he instantly replied. "I just prayed. We all prayed. We're Christians and we prayed. Couldn't have got through it without prayer. And prayer for them too."
He meant, prayer for those who tormented him.
We hear constantly about what Christianity is, but it seems to me that this was as clear a statement as it gets. And when I hear some dismiss religious life, and argue, as my friend Hitch does, that religion poisons everything, I wonder what they would say to this man.
On the plane to DC I took out my Merton (I'm re-reading The Seven Storey Mountain these days) and came across this passage:
It was St Augustine's argument, that envy and hatred try to pierce our neighbor with a sword, when the blade cannot reach him unless it first passes through our own body.
The shoe shine was a Christian. And he was happy.